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Posted April 2, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Front Royal declines to pay county jail bill

By Alex Bridges

A dispute over whether Warren County can charge Front Royal police to keep town prisoners has resurfaced.

Front Royal received an invoice dated March 12 from the Warren County Sheriff's Office seeking $260 for housing 26 inmates for 26 days at the county jail in January and February.

But at a work session Monday, Town Council membrs agreed to not pay the bill, which is what Town Attorney Douglas Napier has recommended. Napier has cited state code and two opinions given by the Virginia Attorney General's Office as reasons why the town should not have to pay the cost to house inmates at the jail.

"The sheriff ... cannot collect from the town of Front Royal since the town citizens also pay county taxes just like all other county citizens," Napier told the council.

Sheriff Daniel McEathron attended the work session and spoke to the matter. McEathron noted the issue has existed since the early 1980s when Lynn C. Armentrout served as county sheriff and charged the town $10 per day to keep the police department's inmates.

"I'd like to put this thing to rest once and for all," McEathron said.

The sheriff recalled the matter arose last May but he chose not to bill the town -- even though the code section allows him to charge - until attorneys for Front Royal and the county work out an agreement.

"Seven months is a long time," McEathron said. "I'm not waiting anymore."

The sheriff concurred that opinions by the state attorney general's office from 1982 indicate the town does not have to pay the county to hold inmates. However, McEathron said four additional, older opinions and a ruling by the Supreme Court indicate the opposite. The sheriff added that court rulings hold the weight of law.

"It doesn't matter to me whether you pay the bill," McEathron said. "I'm not going to go broke without $260. It's a matter of principal."

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he has dealt with the issue in the past.

"We're a part of Warren County," Tewalt said. "We pay the same tax as a person who lives up on Apple Mountain or wherever and I don't think that we should have to be paying for housing our inmates in any jail that I helped to pay for, and I pay just as much as any county resident."

The sheriff told council the timing of the bill as council discusses issues pertaining to the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail is coincidental. Whether the regional jail authority could charge the town to hold its inmates remains unknown, but council at an earlier work session expressed concern that the facility should not bill Front Royal.

But McEathron said the county would no longer bill the town after July 2014 when the regional jail opens and his facility closes.

Statute specifically exempts towns such as Front Royal from being liable for the costs of housing its prisoners in the jail of the county in which that town is located, according to a staff evaluation.

Napier has indicated that he disagrees with an opinion dated May 16 from County Attorney Blair D. Mitchell to McEathron.

Virginia code states that "each sheriff or jail superintendent shall collect from the counties, cities and towns of the Commonwealth, other than the county, city or region for which he is elected or appointed, and from any other state or country for which any prisoner is held in such jail, the reasonably costs ... for prisoners held for such [jurisdiction]."

An opinion issued by the attorney general's office in 1982 states that "you may not bill the incorporated towns within Rockingham County or the City of Harrisonburg for the per diem cost of maintaining prisoners in the Rockingham County Jail ..."

In response to a question by Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker, Napier said the Supreme Court decision referenced by Mitchell occurred in the late 1890s and justices based the opinion on cities and counties - separate entities - not towns. The code section referenced by the Supreme Court has been "substantially modified" since then, according to Napier.

Mayor Timothy Darr sought support from council to put that matter to a vote at a regular meeting, though he admitted the town could "let it lie" and not pay the bill. Darr said the town needed to bring the matter to rest.

"My two cents is it goes back to that old adage 'swallow a mule, choke on a gnat,'" Darr said.

Councilman Daryl Funk and others agreed the town should let the matter lie.

"I've often said I don't want to be having these issues, unfortunately going back and forth with other governmental partners, so I think the path of least resistance is probably to let it lie at this point," Funk said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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